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Puerto Rico in Crisis: ODU Political Scientist Explains the State of the Island’s Economy

By Noell Saunders

A double whammy of hurricanes Irma and Maria took a destructive path across Puerto Rico leaving its citizens without access to electricity and clean drinking water.

"It's so severe that the recovery is likely to take many years. The storm has set the island back in terms of the economy and infrastructure," said Francis Adams, a professor of political science at Old Dominion University.

But before the hurricanes, Puerto Rico was already in big economic trouble. Adams, who teaches classes on globalization and Latin American politics, said the struggling island's financial woes are more significant than many may realize.

"The household income in Puerto Rico is about $19,000 per year, which makes it poorer than the poorest state in the U.S.," he said. "But at the same time, Puerto Rico does have a higher income and standard of living than many Latin American nations."

Critics will argue that the Puerto Rican government hasn't been responsible in the way it accumulated $74 billion in debt and needs to make fundamental reforms before any support is provided. Although the territory has received most of the blame for its crisis, Adams said the changes made to the U.S. tax code, which reduced incentives for U.S.-based companies to invest in Puerto Rico, added to the economic decline.

"The island lost investment from U.S.-based corporations as a result of that," Adams said. "The island is dealing simultaneously with an economic crisis and a natural disaster. Between the two of them, it's going to be a long and difficult road to recovery.

"Puerto Ricans are acting under the most difficult of circumstances with few resources, the loss of critical infrastructure, and limited communications—all of those things needed to begin the process of reconstruction," he continued.

Adams also noted that the United States government has access to the resources necessary to fully support the island.

"The capability is there," Adams said, "but whether there is the will in Congress and the executive branch is another question."

Despite politics, Adams concluded the U.S. has an obligation to help Puerto Rico.

"Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States and Puerto Ricans are United States citizens." he said. "The United States has the same responsibility to the people of Puerto Rico as it does to citizens in any of the other parts of the United States."

Facts about Puerto Rico:

  • Although Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, they are not able to vote in federal or presidential elections, nor do they have representation in Congress.
  • Puerto Rico does receive some social benefits from the U.S. government, but they are not required to pay federal income taxes.
  • The poverty rate is about 40 percent.
  • The unemployment rate is about 12 percent
  • President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act on March 2, 1917, which granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship.
  • The island was not allowed to elect its own governor until 1947.

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